The House of a Thousand Servants (Jul, 1931)

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The House of a Thousand Servants

WHAT might be called the most unusual house in America is the home of O. H. Caldwell, of Cos Cob, Connecticut. Mr. Caldwell is a noted electrical engineer and the former Federal Radio Commissioner. This house has over a thousand servants and yet has no servant problem, for all of the servants are electrical gadgets of one kind or another that do all the work.

Merely open the gate of this house and the building is flooded with light, inside and outside. At the flash of an automobile headlight the garage doors open automatically and the interior lights up. In summer the cool water from two deep wells is circulated through the steam pipes, thus cooling the house.

Ten radio stations sets situated in different parts of the house, all controlled by time clocks, are there to amuse you, and after you retire the radio will continue to play until you are asleep and then will automatically shut itself off.

The furnace is stoked by electricity, and there are over 100 outlets in the house for electric heaters, fans, piano, cleaning and laundry equipment, heated blankets, etc. The kitchen has 26 places to use electricity and one machine alone has over 150 uses. All of the cooking, heating and preparation of food is done by electricity.

  1. rick says: June 10, 200911:56 am

    I suppose that there was a way to drain away the condensation from all those radiators that the cold water was circulating through. If not, it must have been pretty messy in that house. I’m also guessing that the furnace was stoked by one of those Sears Roebucks Iron Firemen that I used to see ads for when I was a kid. Home furnaces were fueled by coal back then and were stoked by hand. The Iron Fireman was a contraption consisting of a large diameter pipe with a long screw which turned slowly and automatically to load a steady stream of coal from the coal bin into the furnace. If you had one of those things you were cutting edge!


  2. knr says: June 10, 200912:01 pm

    I imagine that there was some similar system to the Iron Fireman to handle clinkers and bottom ash (inquiring minds want to know)

  3. Tom says: June 10, 200912:31 pm

    Ray Bradbury, There Will Come Soft Rains.

  4. rick says: June 10, 20094:09 pm

    Hi knr. Yes I suppose they did have some sort of system to remove ashes. The billboards that advertised them only showed a man-like robot made of stovepipes shoveling in the coal. That’s where the Iron Fireman name came from I guess. Nothing was shown for removing ashes, even in the more detailed magazine ads that showed the pipe and screw contraption. Anyways, here’s a site that shows an ashtray with a miniature Iron Fireman on it as well as a little more info.



  5. John M. Hanna says: June 11, 20094:06 am

    This is like that that old Warner Brother’s cartoon of where two dogs get into a house of tomorrow. It had a robot that swept up cigarette ashes (and anything else that happened to fall on the floor).

  6. Don says: June 11, 20096:58 am

    We had an Iron Fireman in the house I first lived in. It didn’t remove anything, and my first “job” was removing the clinkers weekly, for which I was paid a small sum. The logo scared the dickens out of me and I got the clinkers out and restarted the furnace QUICKLY so I didn’t need to be in the same room with it for very long . . . .

  7. rick says: June 11, 200911:10 am

    Don, that is an interesting comment. You’re the first person I ever heard of that actually had one of those things. And I guess the magazine ads showing them were correct in that they didn’t show anything about clinker removal. And it’s funny how you were creeped out by the logo of the Iron Fireman. In my case I was creeped out by the coal furnace itself! It was a monster of a thing taking up a good part of the basement with all those large diameter convection heating ducts running in all directions. I hated being in the basement for any length of time with it. I sometimes wonder whether our whole generation was spooked by those monsters. 😉


  8. Don says: June 11, 20092:06 pm

    I wasn’t creeped out at all — *I* was too MATURE for that sort of thing; after all, I was old enough to have a job! ;^)

    Our next house had a “modern” oil furnace. BUT in the room that had been a coal room, there was some part of the old coal handler — and there was that logo again! I wouldn’t stay long in that room either, even though we had converted it for food storage.

  9. fred says: June 11, 20093:12 pm

    A Roomba ate My homework

  10. rick says: June 11, 20093:52 pm

    So my guess is that you were not a big fan of the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz either 🙂


  11. Roger says: June 13, 20094:58 pm

    Google “The Iron Fireman” – looks like the company still exists.

  12. StanFlouride says: June 14, 20099:55 am

    Except that the device for raising the motor is a vertical shaft rather than a hinge, that food processor does not look significantly different from the Kitchen Aid one sitting on my kitchen counter. It even has the control handle in the same place on the right, the front opening to attach a grater/grinder, and the same shape pastry mixing blade.

  13. Tom Brady says: June 15, 20093:04 pm

    During the mid- 30s we had an”Iron Fireman” system. It had a hopper, which was filled with anthracite pea-coal every couple of days (by me!). The hopper fed an electricity-powered auger which slowly fed the coal into the center of the furnace. The coal was pushed outward toward the edge of the circular firebox plate. The ashes fell over the edge, and another device; this one a chain with little plates on it, dragged the ashes out and dumped them into a 5 gallon pail. From there they had to be carried out to the curb (by me!).

    The most interesting thing, to me at least, was that this was all thermostatically controlled, and the thermostat included a wind-up clock which could be set. After setting the thermostat, which was, I think, in the living room, the temperature of the room would control when the auger fed more coal to the furnace. The wind-up clock shut the system down during the night, and started it up in the morning at a pre-set time. So, we got up to a warm house; not like most people we knew, who had to go to the basement and bank the fire at night; get up to a cold house; go down to the basement, and throw on more coal to get things started.


  14. rick says: June 15, 200910:05 pm

    Hi Tom. Very interesting comment. As I said in earlier posts, we never had an Iron Fireman but the billboards all over town showed them and I was rather intrigued with the idea of not having to shovel coal by hand into the furnace and bank it each night, as you said. The wind up clock thermostat is news to me. I didn’t know such things existed at that time. In our case, we did have a thermostat of some kind installed for our coal furnace later during my childhood. It was a real Rube Goldberg contraption! There were several electric motors installed onto the furnace which operated small arms attached to gearboxes on each one. To these arms were attached chains which were connected to the damper ports around the furnace. When actuated, the motors operated the arms which in turn lifted the damper doors to allow air to enter into the firebox and thus allow the coal fire to burn more intensely increasing the heat. Once the thermostat sensed the higher room temperature it closed the dampers down to reduce the fire intensity. I used to go into the basement periodically to watch those things operate. They made a distinctive grinding sound (the gearbox mechanisms, no doubt) which I can still clearly remember to this day. Those chains between the motor arms and dampers were of a type called furnace chain, which can still be purchased in hardware stores today. It’s still called furnace chain but is used for other sundry uses now. Great information! Thanks!


  15. Toronto says: June 16, 200912:30 am

    One of the military houses I grew up in had a furnace that was a coal-burning monster converted to oil. It looked a bit like MaryAnne (Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel.)

    It still had the clockwork timer to shut off at night. The controller was a metal box about 10″x6″x3″, with a small (1″) clock dial showing through the closed lid – it was meant to show local time (you had to reset it after a power failure unless you had it on bypass.) The start and stop times were set with metal levers inside the box (ie you opened the lid to set it up.)

    We had some all-time record snows back then, and lots of blackouts, so I expect that stayed on bypass all winter.

  16. Scott B. says: June 16, 200912:52 am

    I love this site. It’s one of the few on the interweb where I feel like a kid (at 45)!

    I’m fascinated by all this furnace talk, having always lived in warmer climes. Did these Rube Goldberg autofeeding coal systems and mechanical temperature controls ever fail with catastrophic results?

  17. rick says: June 16, 20098:35 am

    Hi Scott. The one we had, the Rube Goldberg without the timer, worked well all the time we had it. Considering its complicated and seemingly ad hoc nature it never failed us. Since we did not have the Iron Fireman contraption to go with it we still had to load the furnace by hand in the morning and, on really cold days once or twice during the day. The last filling was before bedtime and that never lasted all night. I believe my father simply set it low to keep the fire banked all night so that in the morning he wouldn’t have to start the first load of the day from scratch. He’d go down and shake out the ashes using a lever on the side of the furnace, which also made a typical sound that I can plainly recall, remove the ashes from under the grate and add more coal to the glowing embers from the previous night. The cold ashes were kept in a bushel basket and carried outside for pickup a couple of times a week. We also used them to spread on icy sidewalks. They worked great for that but made a mess that had to be cleaned up later on.

    No, there were no catastrophic failures with our thermostat-motor-furnace chain arrangement. If the coal was used up during the night it simply got cold in the house. An early example of a fail-safe system, maybe 😉


  18. Shawn says: November 28, 20109:38 pm

    I’m so glad i found this post. My husband and I actually live in this house currently and we had no idea about the history, although we were extremely puzzled at the vast amount of wiring and outlets found throughout the property.The same house and carriage house still stands.We even have the old Ktchenaid mixer pictured above that we found in the garage.And, believe it or not, we still have the furnace (oil) which is faithfully chugging along .

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